Facts: Sunscreen, it’s Ingredients and the FDA

best sunscreen ingredients

1. There are two kinds of active SPF ingredients

Active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms, mineral and chemical filters. Each uses a different mechanism for protecting skin and maintaining stability in sunlight. The most common sunscreens on the market contain chemical filters. These products typically include a combination of two to six of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. A handful of products combine zinc oxide with chemical filters.

 

2. The current FDA approved ingredients are grandfathered in

The Food and Drug Administration has not reviewed evidence of potential hazards of sunscreen filters – instead it grandfathered in ingredients used in the late 1970s when it began to consider sunscreen safety.

 

3. Oxybenzone isn’t safe for everyone

Oxybenzone can cause allergic skin reactions (Rodriguez 2006). In laboratory studies it is a weak estrogen and has potent anti-androgenic effects (Krause 2012)

 

4. Mineral sunscreens are less harmful than chemical sunscreens

There is good evidence that little if any zinc or titanium particles penetrate the skin to reach living tissues. Thus, mineral sunscreens tend to rate better than chemical sunscreens in the EWG sunscreen database.

 

5. Methylisothiazolinone, an allergen, is found in 94 sunscreens

This year, EWG has found methylisothiazolinone is listed on the labels of 94 sunscreens including six marketed to children. The American Contact Dermatitis Society named methylisothiazolinone its “allergen of the year” in 2013.

 

6. Most sunscreens don’t provide protection against UVA rays

Many sunscreens don’t provide adequate protection from UVA rays. While higher-energy UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburns and pre-cancerous DNA mutations, lower-energy UVA rays cause tanning and more subtle damage. They penetrate deeper into skin tissue and are most responsible for generating free radicals – energized molecules that are highly reactive and can damage DNA and skin cells, promote skin aging, and cause skin cancer.

 

7. UV rays break down the effectiveness of sunscreens

UV rays can break down avobenzone, the most common UVA filter in American sunscreens, unless it is mixed with a stabilizer. Zinc oxide is the only other approved ingredient with strong UVA filtering, and titanium dioxide is moderately effective at protecting against UVA rays.

 

8. The European market offers superior sunscreen ingredients

European sunscreens appear to provide greater free radical protection because they can contain superior UVA filters. In tests, 12 European sunscreens averaged a free radical protection factor of 13, and the two most similar to U.S. products offered much less UVA and free radical protection (Wang 2011).

Between 2003 and 2010, sunscreen makers applied for FDA permission to use eight sun-filtering chemicals developed by European companies. Four of these – Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL – appear to be more effective than avobenzone, the most common UVA filter permitted by the FDA. The FDA’s failure to respond to these applications prompted Congress to pass the Sunscreen Innovation Act of 2014 (FDA 2014). This act requires the FDA to review new applications for sunscreen active ingredients within 300 days.

 


Sunscreen Active Ingredient Breakdown

This table outlines human exposure and toxicity information for nine FDA-approved sunscreen chemicals.

Chemical
EWG Hazard Score
Use in U.S. sunscreens
Skin Penetration
Hormone disruption
Skin Allergy
Other concerns
References

UV filters with higher toxicity concerns

Oxybenzone8WidespreadDetected in nearly every American; found in mother’s milk; 1% to 9% skin penetration in lab studiesActs like estrogen in the body; alters sperm production in animals; associated with endometriosis in womenRelatively high rates of skin allergyN/AJanjua 2004, Janjua 2008, Sarveiya 2004, Gonzalez 2006, Rodriguez 2006, Krause 2012
Octinoxate (Octylmethoxycinnamate)6WidespreadFound in mothers’ milk; less than 1% skin penetration in human and laboratory studiesHormone-like activity; reproductive system, thyroid and behavioral alterations in animal studiesModerate rates of skin allergyN/AKrause 2012, Sarveiya 2004, Rodriguez, 2006, Klinubol 2008

UV filters with moderate toxicity concerns

Homosalate4WidespreadFound in mothers’ milk; skin penetration less than 1% in human and laboratory studiesDisrupts estrogen, androgen and progesteroneN/AToxic breakdown productsKrause 2012, Sarveiya 2004, SCCNFP 2006
Octisalate3Widespread; stabilizes avobenzoneSkin penetration in lab studiesN/ARarely reported skin allergyN/AWalters 1997, Shaw 2006 Singh 2007
Octocrylene3WidespreadFound in mothers’ milk; skin penetration in lab studiesN/ARelatively high rates of skin allergyN/AKrause 2012, Bryden 2006, Hayden 2005

UV filters with lower toxicity concerns

Titanium Dioxide2 (topical use), 6 (powder or spray)WidespreadNo finding of skin penetrationNo evidence of hormone disruptionNoneInhalation concernsGamer 2006, Nohynek 2007, Wu 2009, Sadrieh 2010, Takeda 2009, Shimizu 2009, Park 2009, IARC 2006b
Zinc Oxide2 (topical use), 4 (powder or spray)Widespread; excellent UVA protectionLess than 0.01% skin penetration in human volunteersNo evidence of hormone disruptionNoneInhalation concernsGulson 2012, Sayes 2007, Nohynek 2007, SCCS 2012
Avobenzone2Widespread; best UVA protection of chemical filtersVery limited skin penetrationNo evidence of hormone disruptionBreakdown product causes relatively high rates of skin allergyUnstable in sunshine, must be mixed with stabilizersKlinubol 2008, Bryden 2006, Hayden 2005, Montenegro 2008, Nash 2014
Mexoryl SX2Uncommon; pending FDA approval; offers good, stable UVA protectionLess than 0.16% skin penetration in human volunteersNo evidence of hormone disruptionSkin allergy is rareN/ABenech-Kieffer 2003, Fourtanier2008
 

Six other ingredients approved in the U.S. are rarely used in sunscreens: benzophenone-4, benzophenone-8, menthyl anthranilate, PABA, Padimate O, and trolamine salicylate

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